Bilenky Cycle Works looks like a run-down shack stuffed into a small forest on a dead-end street. This is probably because this custom bike shop, located at 5319 N. Second St. in Olney, is not the retail-style bike store most people are used to.
While most shops are neatly filled with bikes and racks of accessories, Bilenky more closely resembles a warehouse: parts strewn everywhere, little room to walk and men operating loud machinery strewn throughout the room.
One of Bilenky Cycle Works’ specialties is building custom bikes. The owner, Steve Bilenky, opened the shop in 1983 after years of experience.
“I started working at bike shops when I was really young,” Bilenky said. “And because of riding and fixing them so much, eventually I became a manager. And then I opened my own shop.”
Each year, the employees build about 100 custom bikes from scratch to the specifications of their customers. To order a custom bike, customers fill out a form listing different bike parts and potential dimensions they can alter, provided they know how.
“It depends on how much they know about bikes. Sometimes on order forms they say, ‘This is how big I am and this is what I ride’ and then we figure it out. Other people are already getting their third bike and they tell me what numbers they want,” Bilenky said.
In addition to specifying the dimensions of the bike, the customer is able to choose paint design, color, chrome, finish, decals and more. Bilenky also provides a larger range of customer service than most bike shops do.
The company, which is based in Philadelphia but has dealers throughout the world, often performs repairs and restorations. However, the most popular work completed by Bilenky in recent years involves portability.
“The popular thing now is these travel bikes – bikes you could take apart,” Bilenky said. “Since tandems are really big and hard to take around, we put these couplers in so the frame comes apart. Then you could stick it in a suitcase so it’s airline-checkable luggage instead of a big box.”
While about half of the bikes made at Bilenky are travel bikes, many people bring their own bikes to the shop to have them converted using couplers that attach parts to one another. Converting bikes for portability is known in the bike world as retrofitting and, Bilenky said, it can be done with almost any bike.
“People send us other brands of bikes and we cut them and put these couplers in so the frame comes apart. Pretty much any major brand of bike could be made into a travel bike,” Bilenky said.
As many know, trends in bike culture change constantly. Since the 1970s, different types and features in bicycles have been popular, and shop owners have to realize this to keep up with the times.
“There was a point just before I went to college and it was considered the bike boom. Everyone was getting European lightweight bikes. Now, people are starting to get into commuting and delivering and fitness, so there are a lot more people using bikes. It’s a lot more sophisticated,” Bilenky said.
Just as clothing styles become more retro as time goes on, bike styles are doing the same. Bilenky Cycle Works has recently been converting not only to travel bikes, but also to single-speed and fixed-gear bikes.
“Single speed makes more sense,” Bilenky said. “They’re not fixed, so you can still coast. And they’re real simple, like the old Schwinns.”
Fixed-gear bikes have pedals that are directly attached to the wheels, so there’s an inability for the bike to coast. Also, there are no brakes. So what’s the attraction?
“Two appeals,” Bilenky explained. “One is it’s real simple. There’s less stuff to break. Another thing is, I guess it’s more of a fashion. It’s like in the ’70s – everyone was buying race bikes and nobody was racing. And right now, a lot of people like messenger bikes but nobody’s a messenger.”
Bilenky has only five full-time employees. Because it’s such a small staff, each person is crucial to maintaining a smoothly-running shop.
“There’s definitely division of labor. Simon cuts the tubes and Bob does a lot of the final operations. And then we send the bikes out, so we have two different people that paint for us,” Bilenky said.
Bilenky Cycle Works is one-of-a-kind because of its flawless custom work and the large amount of services it provides.
It’s more than just a bike shop – it is a bike factory. A bike should reflect a style unique to its owner, and Bilenky’s ability to create this is what keeps people riding back.
Carlene Majorino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.